It was a memorable weekend for the Borderland Thunder as they played their first home games at Memorial Sports Centre—signalling the return of junior level hockey in the district in almost 30 years.
But Thunder head coach Wayne Strachan said it would have been even more memorable had the team not played so flat on the ice.
“I think, overall, everyone was a little nervous. We didn’t know what to expect and we just wanted to put on a good performance,” said Strachan after his team earned a 4-2 win Friday and then a 2-2 tie Saturday against the Thunder Bay KC Bulldogs before close to 1,200 fans at the “Ice for Kids” Arena.
The three points also helped the Thunder maintain a share of first place in the Superior International Junior Hockey League with the Dryden Ice Dogs at 5-1-2.
The Thunder will have 10 days off before travelling to Dryden for a game next Wednesday (Oct. 24). Their next home games are slated Oct. 26-27 against the Northwest Wisconsin Knights of Spooner.
Thunder leading scorer Kevin Webb, who got a goal and an assist last weekend, said opening-night jitters only played a small role in their performance.
“A lot of times, we looked a little nervous out there, but that’s no excuse to how bad we played,” he remarked.
Bulldogs head coach Brian Vescio, whose team sat through their own opening ceremonies against the Thunder back on Sept. 28 at the Fort William Gardens, said coping was nerves was something the home team had to deal with.
“I thought that might happen. It was a long opening ceremony,” he noted. “Sometimes that can work as a disadvantage, especially for the home team who wants to come out flying.”
Friday’s debut also was a penalty-filled affair, including a 10-player brawl in the second period, which slowed the pace of play.
“We got a couple penalties off the get-go. It just wasn’t an exciting game,” said Strachan. “There was a lot of stoppages and penalties. I just didn’t think it was necessary for the game to go that slow.”
Tom Rose and Josh Baxter had given the Thunder a 2-0 lead after one period but the Bulldogs battled back to tie it in the second on goals by Tom Grant and Curtis Lyons.
Webb got the eventual game-winning goal later in the second before Matt Johnson netted an insurance tally in the third.
The Thunder also jumped out to a quick start in Saturday night’s game when Justin Bodnarchuk found himself alone in front to score his second goal of the season just as a power play expired.
Grant then was johnny-on-the-spot during a Bulldog power play, shooting the puck into the open side as Thunder goalie Tom Iwaniec was scrambling to his feet.
It took several close calls, wide shots, and a blown five-on-three power play for the Thunder to finally retake the lead with 90 seconds left in the second period.
Baxter charged the net and popped in a Webb rebound over a diving Mark Grant to put the Thunder up 2-1.
But the Bulldogs salvaged the tie when Jordan Gehl scored a goal similar to their first one—cutting across the net to fool Iwaniec with just over 11 minutes to play.
“I think in the first period, we carried the play and took it to them. We got off one goal and I don’t know what happened,” said Strachan. “We wanted to keep going at them. We didn’t get a lot of effort tonight.
“The boys weren’t skating and I think we’re fortunate to come out with a tie,” he added.
Webb agreed, noting both games here lacked the crispness of their outings in Thunder Bay.
“We just weren’t moving our legs. We couldn’t get any pucks on the stick and it just wasn’t bouncing right,” he said. “We came out pretty flat.
“We didn’t play to our potential and it just cost us the win.
”The Bulldogs (1-5-1)—second last in the SIJHL to the lowly Thunder Bay Wolves (0-6)—were in desperate need of wake-up call.
Vescio said he hopes Saturday’s tie will turn things around for his team as they host the Dryden Ice Dogs this weekend.
“It was a very good effort tonight [Saturday],” he said. “I think we got outplayed in the first period but from there, I think they put the effort in. That’s all we ask, that they put the effort in.
“Hopefully, this will be a positive start for us in our quest to get our record back to .500,” he added. “Fort Frances is probably the best team in the league at this stage in the season so we have a long way to go.”
Webb said the teams have become improved a lot since the season opened last month.
“We’re seeing a lot different teams. The teams are just getting better and better in this league,” he noted.
In related news, Feathermen Hawks (Thunder Bay) forward Brent Greene overtook Webb for the lead in the league scoring race. The Shoal Lake native netted three goals and two assists against the Wolves to sit with 17 points.
Webb has 11 goals and four assists for 15 points.